During the 16th century, the time during which poet and writer Edmund Spenser was alive, England, under Tudor rule, was reasserting its control in Ireland. The previous conquest of the island under the Norman ruler Henry II had failed within its first few decades due to various reasons, including a limited scope of expansion, assimilation with the natives, and private motivation. Even though laws had been affected in areas closely surrounding The Pale, they were never fully enforced and thereby proved to be inefficient. In A View of the State of Ireland, Edmund Spenser puts forth a proposal on how to prevent history from repeating itself. Through his humanist dialogue between foil, Eudoxus, and main speaker, Iranaeus, he explains the failures of the 12th century Norman Conquest and occupation, and then uses this as justification for the drastic repression he proposes for the Irish people.
The Tudor crown took a strong interest in the occupation of Ireland, and expanded their political power into the area after years of administrative neglect. Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chancellor appointed by Henry VIII, made it his goal to reintegrate Ireland under the English crown and to regain previously English territory on the neighboring island. He aimed to rotate Lord Deputyship, removing the Kildares from their “virtual throne.” Previously, through aristocratic delegation, the rule of Ireland was appointed to one lord. This process would allow England to save money and also to focus attention on other more important issues plaguing the nation. Instead of ruling Ireland for England, however, the lord – the Earl of Kildare – ruled in his own interest by tax farming and exploitation and extortion of The Pale. Cromwell’s desire to change the system of aristocratic delegation to a rotating position instigated rebellion and threats from the likes of the Geraldine League, a group furthering the cause of the Earls of Kildare who lost their seat of power. When, in 1541, Henry VIII became the King of Ireland under the Kingship of Ireland Act, he also was able to have Conn Bacach O’Neill, who was then head of the Geraldine League, to submit to surrender and re-grant, naming him the Earl of Tyrone. This proved to be only a temporary solution, as the Earl of Tyrone later turned around and rebelled, causing Ireland’s 9 Years War.
Degeneration, or the assimilation of the Old English with the native Irish population, is one of Edmund Spenser’s main arguments in A View of the State of Ireland for the failure of the 12th century Norman Conquest. Spenser mimics the phrase hiberniores ipsis hibernis in saying that “some of them [namely the Old English] are degenerated and growne almost mere Irish, yea, and more malitious to the English then the Irish themselves.”1 Because the previous occupation of Ireland was mainly concerned with tillage agriculture, the settlement was fragmented to where land was fertile enough to farm. The only area under complete English control was The Pale, a small region on the east coast of Ireland. The rest of the island was still heavily Gaelic in all aspects of life – culture, religion, and law. Those English nobles who ventured outside of The Pale, known as the Marcher Lords, found it necessary to assimilate to their Gaelic surroundings so as to better create alliances and foment a strong powerbase. An example of this can be seen with Gearoid Mor, or Gerald the Great, who ruled as Lord Deputy and Earl of Kildare from 1456-1513. Though not in the periphery regions of Ireland, he still felt it necessary to adopt some of the customs and practices of his neighbors. He created alliances with the O’Neill clan through intermarriage, and used this to bring stability to his seat of power, which he then used for individual, rather than royal, gain. Whereas assimilation may have been beneficial to the Kildares and individual Marcher Lords who were looking for increased power and control, overall, the hybrid culture that was created, or degeneration, was detrimental to the overall conquest of the island.
Spenser argues that language is the main cause for degeneration amongst the Old English. He states, “the words are the image of the minde, so as they proceeding from the minde, the minde must needs be affected with the words. So that the speech being Irish, the heart must needs bee Irish: for out of the abundance of the heart, the tongue speaketh.”2 In other words, by speaking the Irish language, one immediately becomes Irish in behavior and vice. There are several reasons for the bilingual nature of the Old Irish settlers: inter-marrying, fosterage, and Bards. Very often, Marcher Lords would marry the Irish daughters of nearby Irish “kings.” These hybrid families would hire Irish betagh or laborers to work on their land, for lack of poor English peasants. They would also hire Irish wet-nurses to care for their young. Spenser argues that these Irish wet-nurses and Irish mothers were a main cause of degeneration. He says that “young children be like apes”3 and that they are easily impressionable by those who raise them. He continues, “they moreover drawe into themesleves, together with their sucke, even the nature and disposition of their nurses.”4 It is a strong, though not far-fetched, claim to make that the behavior and customs of a people come through the breast. In Celtic mythology, the symbol of a woman’s breast is often used to represent a country and a people. In The Táin Bó Cuailnge, specifically in the tale of Cúchulainn’s Courtship of Emer and his Training in arms with Scáthach, the protagonist “seized her [namely Aife, his female opponent] by the two breasts… he threw her heavily to the ground and held a naked sword over her.”5 In this scene, the main character conquers his enemy, and similarly her entire retinue, through the simple act of grabbing her breast. Perhaps Spenser, a poet himself, was inspired by the same motifs used in the country he described.
Fosterage, or the practice of sending a recently weaned child of a nobleman off to be raised and taught by another family of similar social status, also encouraged the cultural mixing of which Spenser was so against. He states that not only are these children brought up “lewdly, and Irish like”6 with the Gaelic culture, but also that they show a stronger loyalty and bond with their foster family than with their birth family. This posed a problem, as the children of English nobles would show more fidelity towards Ireland and its people than towards their English family and country.
Spenser further blames language for the degeneration of the Old English in his description of Bards, “whose profession is to set foorth the praises or dispraises of men in their poems or rymes.”7 It is important to note that as a poet, Edmund Spenser was never as successful as these Bards, and so it is possible that one can find a tinge of jealousy in his description of these men who were held in high regard amongst the Gaelic Irish. Spenser states that these Bards, instead of describing positive attributes of heroes and kings, but rather “set up and glorifie in their rithmes… whomsoever they finde to be most licentious of life… and to yong men make an example to follow.”8 Many of the Marcher Lords would hire these Bards to write praise poems in order to receive more support from their Gaelic neighbors.
Many of the Irish customs, which Spenser incorrectly traces back to the barbarian Scythian race, were threatening to the New English settlers and in Spenser’s eyes, needed to be eradicated. He spends a fair amount of time describing the attire of Gaelic Irishmen – the mantle and glibbe (long hair). He says that both of these fashion statements are “both very bad and hurtful.”9 The mantle, a large blanket, supported out-laws, rebels, and thieves in their illegal activities, providing shelter, disguise, and protection. Similarly, the glibbe, a “thicke curled bush of haire, hanging downe over their eyes,”10 could also help disguise a man, and “are as fit maskes as a mantle is for a thiefe.”11 Furthermore, it was difficult to enforce any law against these criminals. Trial by jury is ineffective, especially in a trial between an Englishman and an Irishman.12 The governors in Ireland are corrupt, and at times useless. Spenser states, “if hee may command them, then hee may command them as well to ill as to good,”13 meaning that often times, the people in power in Ireland were not using their influence in a positive manner. With Cromwell’s introduction of a rotating Lord Deputyship, these “captaines” would not “seeke at all to represse… evil… onely smother and keepe downe the flame of the mischief, so as it may not breake out in their time of government: what comes afterwards, they care not.”14 These governors had no desire to enact any positive change during their reign, but rather, allowed the problem to fester for the next governor to handle.
Throughout Spenser’s dialogue, his foil, Eudoxus continuously asks the same question: “But are there not laws already provided, for avoiding of this evill?”15 Irenaeus answers that the laws put forth during the past conquest through various parliamentary acts did not work. He says, “for it is vaine to prescribe laws where no man careth for keeping of them, nor feareth the daunger for breaking of them.”16 His argument is that laws don’t work for the Irish people, and that there is no use in applying laws before reforming the population. Even though the Statues of Kilkenny were enforced in 1366 in order to prevent the mixed relationships between Irish and English, the bilingual tendencies of the Old English, and independent power-base laws among the Marcher Lords, degeneration still took place. The laws proved to be unenforceable. Semi-independent fiefdoms arose around the emerging English dynasties of the Earls of Desmond, Kildare, and Ormond, who would use their power for personal gain and neglect their duties to the English crown. As mentioned earlier, law courts against the common Irish folk were biased and inefficient. Spenser claims that Ireland must be reformed “by the sword; for all these evils must first be cut away by a strong hand, before any good can bee planted.”17 In other words, if Ireland doesn’t respond to the law, violence and force must be used to first subdue the people.
Though seemingly harsh at first, Spenser’s proposal is justified through Irenaeus’ explanation. He doesn’t suggest the total annihilation of the Irish people or the Old English inhabitants by any means. He explains that even though the population of Ireland may behave poorly and carry a myriad of vices, “by good ordinances and government, [the population] may be made good.”18 It is also important to have a strong peasant population when settling an area to contribute to labor. The flaws in the society, not the people, must be removed. He proposed the cutting off of the head – the Bards, the nobility, and the warrior class – so that they would not be able to incite rebellion and inspire the people of Ireland in a negative manner. For those who remain in rebellion after England’s initial military campaign, which Spenser claims will only take half a year,19 starvation was the way to proceed in repressing them. Spenser further justifies this harsh treatment of rebels by stating that they would be bringing the “extremitie of famine”20 upon themselves.
A View of the State of Ireland proves that the previous methods used by the English government, “faire meanes and peaceable plots,”21 failed to help create a successful conquering and occupation of the island. By listing and explaining each of the flaws of the past Norman Conquest and the vices and barbarism of the Irish people, Edmund Spenser made it apparent that a drastic change needed to be made in order to prevent the failures of the past. His proposal for intense repression was justifiable because it only aimed to punish those who would not submit to English authority. Though Spenser died in poverty in the year 1599, his ideas continued to resonate. During the 9 Years War, Lord Mountjoy used the idea of starving the Irish to defeat the O’Neill army and take over Ulster. Carew, in Munster, used similar tactics as well. In 1609, James I, though perhaps in no relation to Spenser’s text, decided to eliminate the ruling class of Ireland in his creation of the Plantation of Ulster. This plan, confiscating the territories of Armagh, Derry, Cavan, Donegal, Tyrone, and Fermanagh from the Gaelic vassals who previously held power, brought about the demise of Gaelic political power throughout Ireland, and fomented the beginning of a strong English presence in the island for the coming centuries.
1 Spenser, Edmund, and Andrew Hadfield. A view of the state of Ireland. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, p. 54. Print.
2Ibid., p. 71
5 Kinsella, Thomas. The Táin translated from the Irish epic Táin bó Cualinge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 33. Print.
6 Spenser, Edmund, p. 36
7Ibid., p. 75
8Ibid., p. 76
9 Ibid., p. 56
11Ibid., p. 59
12Ibid., p. 30
13Ibid., p. 42
14Ibid., p. 90
15Ibid., p. 73
16Ibid., p. 92
17Ibid., p. 93
19Ibid., p. 99 “Therefore if they bee well followed but one winter, you shall have little worke with them the next summer.”